What you need to know about the German election

What you need to know about the German election
By Alexandra Leistner
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What is an overhang vote? Why do Germans have two votes? Find the answers in our explainer.


Did you know Germans have two votes in their general election? And that the total number of seats in parliament varies? What are the most unusual political parties and what do they campaign for? Find the answers to these and more in our explainer on Germany’s election.

When is polling day?
German voters go to the polls to elect the 19th Bundestag on Sunday, September 24th.

What time are polls open?
Polls are open from 8am to 6pm

Who votes?
About 61.5 million German adults are eligible to vote. According to official numbers there are 400,000 less voters than in 2013.

The breakdown of those eligible to vote is: 29.9m men, 31.7m women and three million first-time voters.

But voting is not compulsory.

Voters cast their ballot in their main place of residence. The community sends a letter to all eligible voters with an invitation to vote. The polling station is indicated here, too.

A little over six weeks before the vote twice as many Germans living abroad had registered for the election, compared to 2013.

Why are there two votes?
On their ballots voters will be able to mark two crosses.

“Erststimme” or first vote. The first allows voters to choose a candidate in their district. Germany is divided into 299 districts. The candidate with the most votes in one district automatically has a seat in parliament, so 299 lawmakers from the districts are sent to Berlin. It is the only way for an independent candidate to make it into the Bundestag. One district represents around 250.000 eligible voters.

“Zweitstimme” or second vote. Even though the name might suggest otherwise it is the vote with more impact. With the second cross on their ballot, voters choose a party. The candidates sent to the Bundestag by the party are put together on the regional electoral list.

Each party is then given a number of seats in the Bundestag that is in proportion to its share of second votes (for example, 40 percent of the vote would equal 40 percent of the seats).

Split votes?
It is possible to vote for a candidate of one party in the first vote and vote for another party in the second vote.

An interesting fact: If the candidate from the first vote is independent and makes it into parliament, the second vote is not counted. This rule is designed to prevent a double influence on the composition of the Bundestag.

The mysterious overhang mandates
The German parliament has a total of 598 seats. Of those 299 are for MPs sent directly to Berlin from the districts.

But the proportion of seats a party gets in the Bundestag equates to the percentage of votes the party gets with the second vote.

If more candidates of a party get into parliament directly with the first vote than the party earns in the second poll, this is called an overhang.

If, for example, a party is entitled to five seats, but wins six constituencies in the first vote, the sixth is referred to as an overhang.


In order to keep the proportional distribution of seats, this is counterbalanced by “equalising” and giving seats to other parties.

Due to overhang and equalising, the last Bundestag had 630 instead of 598 seats.

Election threshold
The second vote doesn’t count for parties unless they get more than a five percent share or three candidates elected in the first round.

Are Germans avid voters?
The turnout in 2013 was 71.5 percent – the numbers have been shrinking since 1998 when 82.2 percent of voters participated. The record for turnout was set in 1972 when 91.1 percent of Germans used their right to vote.

Who elects the chancellor?
All the MPs in the German parliament vote for a candidate that is suggested by the head of state, the German president. This person needs an absolute majority of MPs in order to become the new chancellor of Germany.


Can we trust the polls?
In the last two elections (2009 and 2013) the polls were quite close to the final results. The two most reliable institutes (Allensbach and Emnid) predicted the outcome with a difference of 1-2 percent.

For the upcoming election polls predict 38.8 percent for Merkel’s CDU, 24 percent for Martin Schulz and the SPD, 9 percent for the liberal FDP, 8.5 percent for The Left (far-left), 8.0 percent for the right-wing populist party AfD, 7.3 percent for the Greens, and 4.5 percent for other parties.

Who are the main candidates? And what do they want? A total of 42 parties are participating in this year’s election, but not all of them stand in the election in each of the federal states. Eight of them only present candidates for the first vote. Who are the main candidates?

Angela Merkel (CDU)
All polls suggest that the 62-year old will be the old and new German chancellor. It would be her fourth term.

What the party promises The refugee crisis shouldn’t be repeated: the aim is to keep the number of refugees at a low level. A right for parents to return to their job full time after baby break. Raise child benefits by 25 euros per month (now: 192 €/child monthly). Invest two percent of the country’s GDP in military spending.


Martin Schulz (SPD)
The man most Europeans know from his time in Brussels raised hopes for many social democrats. It seems he could not live up to the expectations, with polls suggesting he is unlikely to replace Merkel.

What the party promises The SPD wants free daycare for all families. They are planning a law to have equal pay for men and women. More police, more CCTV in public places. Less export of military equipment. Germans should be able to vote from the age of 16. Less short-term contracts.

Wagenknecht & Bartsch (The Left)
In order to represent the two wings of the party the Left Party has a duo at the top: Dietmar Bartsch (reformist, wants a coalition with the SPD and the Greens) and Sahra Wagenknecht (left wing).

What the party promises Introduce income-tax-free threshold at 1,050 euros (same amount for minimum income, minimum pension), wealth tax of 60 percent above yearly income of 260,000 euros. Stop rent increases. Free police officers of “senseless” duties. Stop deployment of German troops abroad step-by-step and cut down on military spending. Raise minimum salary to 12 euros/hour (from 8,50 euros/hour), retirement age 60 (or after 40 years). Safe and legal ways for refugees to Europe (they can choose in which country they want to go)

Christian Lindner (The FDP – liberal party)
The former coalition partner of the CDU has risen from the ashes like a phoenix after they did not get into parliament in 2013. Their candidate is Christian Lindner; he is only 38 years old and is the youngest party chief in the history of the FDP. His campaign is modern (Twitter, Facebook lives), which attracts more and more young voters.


What the party promises reduce taxes, free choice of when to retire (condition: acquired entitlement above poverty line), invest into police and justice, no storage of personal data, flexible working hours and home office (to make family and work life coexistence easier), investment into education, more women in leadership positions.

Göring-Eckardt and Özdemir (The Greens)
Like the Left Party, the Greens present a duo at their top for the upcoming election. Katrin Göring-Eckardt was the vice-president of the parliament (2005-2013). She is perceived as a “conservative” member of the party: her preferred topics are family, religion and the homeland.

Cem Özdemir had his first mandate for the Bundestag in 1994. He is the son of Turkish immigrants and the Green’s federal chairman since 2008. Özdemir is well known for his repeated criticism of Turkish politics.

What the party promises More taxes for rich people, less for small and mid-range incomes, retirement guarantee for those who have worked, brought up children and looked after family members, more support for children of low-income families, invest at least 7 percent of economic output into education, flexible working hours (30-40 hours/week). Secure and legal escape routes for refugees. Stop coal production until 2030. From 2030 only registration of electric cars.

Gauland and Weidel (The AfD)
The eldest and the youngest candidate combined: Alexander Gauland (76) and Alice Weidel (38) are the duo at the head of the right-populist “Alternative for Germany” party. The party has risen in the polls at the end of 2016 when the refugee crisis was at its peak. The success has decreased but polls suggest they make it into parliament (8 percent).


Gauland is known for his radical views, for example: “People don’t want to be neighbors with Boateng”.

What the party promises The party’s most important topic is immigration, it wants to close borders. No family reunions. Deport criminal foreigners.
Decrease sales tax by 7 percent (from 19 percent today), revoke inheritance tax, minimum pension for low-incomes, more CCTV with facial recognition, analyze DNA-samples by physical features and origin. Lower age of legal responsibility to 12 years. A family is father, mother, child. Take into account “marital misconduct” after divorces. Support parents who look after children at home until 3 years. No inclusion of children with disabilities into conventional schools. Revoke Paris Agreement, focus on nuclear power. More direct democracy.

Parties with the most unusual names and goals

  • The “Purple” Party (Die Violetten) for spiritual politics
  • The Gardenparty from Magdeburg (Magdeburger Gartenpartei), protests against destruction of 162 gardens
  • Feminist Party DIE FRAUEN
  • V-Party³ (V-Partei³) – Party for Change (Veränderung), Vegetarians and Vegan people
  • The Common Sense Party
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